The graffiti on the holding room wall says it all: ‘Gunyah is hell on earth’. And Ellen’s about to find out why. Ellen was never the daughter her mother wanted. Patent leather shoes and frilly dresses just weren’t her thing and, at age fourteen, she’s ready to leave school and find her own way. No one is going to stop her from going where she wants, doing what she wants, and hanging out with Robbie. Or so she thinks. But when the police turn up, Ellen is deemed to be in ‘moral danger’ and is sentenced to the Gunyah Training School for Girls. Suddenly, she’s no longer Ellen, she’s Girl 43, and she has to follow the rules, work hard and – most importantly – stay quiet. When it’s discovered that she’s pregnant, there’s no respite from the staff. Told she isn’t capable of bringing up a child, they twist the truth to make her cooperate. But however hard they try, they can’t destroy the connection between a mother and her child . . . or can they? Drawn from experiences in Parramatta Girls’ Home in the seventies, Girl 43 is a story that could have come straight from today’s headlines about the shocking treatment of innocent children and teens by people in the very institutions that were supposed to protect them.
I know what democracy is. It means living in a fair society, where you have free thought, equality and the right to live however you want – so long as it’s okay with everyone else, especially the law.
I know because I looked it up in a dictionary. This girl with sly eyes and sores on her face said it to me when I was put away.
‘It’s not democratic, this place,’ she whispered, stabbing her porridge with her spoon.
I didn’t have a clue what she was on about, but I didn’t want to look like a dummy by asking. And I was frightened one of the officers might notice and punish me. Talking wasn’t allowed in the dining hall.
I kept the word in my head for three days, till library session.
There’s a girl in the next bed crying.
She’s got untidy blonde hair. I know she is crying, because her shoulders judder and now and then she whimpers. I’m used to seeing girls cry. We all do it, in here.
The room I am in shimmers like oil in a puddle, black and purple swirls. I rub my eyes, they are sandy and raw; this makes them even worse, sending tears across my temples to settle in pools in my ears.
I close my eyes to stop the stinging. My head is throbbing, my limbs ache, my memory is blank.
After a while I open my eyes again, blinking. I lift my head; it hurts, like it did that time when me and Louise drank some of Mum’s whiskey. I drop my head on to the pillow. God, what’s wrong with me?